Union plumbing for new members

United Association taking novel steps to fill its ranks

September 03, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - If only my cousins could see me now, thought plumber Cedric H. Gooden of Washington, D.C., as he and his union brothers welded tubes used in food processing, worked the humidifiers used in computer chip production and repaired the huge valves that keep contamination out of public water lines.

"They say, `Man, I don't want to be no plumber.' And I say, `It isn't just plumbing,'" Gooden said. "They say they want to be auto mechanics. And I say, `You want to be changing tires for $7 an hour when you could be making $26 an hour here?'"

Gooden, 39, is a 15-year veteran of the United Association, the national plumbers and pipe fitters union, and was in Ann Arbor for the union's annual instructor-training session, where he and 1,800 others learned the advanced skills modern-day plumbers need.

It was a far cry from the kind of work his cousins think he does, fixing leaky faucets and clogged toilets. Which is a problem because his cousins' misconception, Gooden said, keeps them from following him into a well-paying and challenging job.

Gooden's difficulty in making his pitch is shared by his union. After decades of guarding the entrances to its union halls, the UA is struggling to attract qualified apprentices to offset a wave of retiring plumbers - and to fend off further incursions by nonunion plumbers and pipe fitters, who now control about 75 percent of the market, including most home construction work. Even with the cooling of the high-tech industry, it's harder than ever to persuade young people reared on the computer mouse to consider the wrench and blowtorch.

Today, the union has about 33,000 apprentices in its five-year training program. That needs to increase to 50,000, so that the UA can graduate 10,000 journeymen a year, said national training director George Bliss.

To meet those goals, the 317,000-member union is doing things unheard of in its days as a closed fathers and sons club - advertising, marketing and even allying with colleges to lure applicants who want a college degree as well as a union card. There is a UA billboard above left field at Camden Yards, the UA logo rides on Rusty Wallace's car at NASCAR races, and UA recruiting ads run on radio stations around the country - all part of a campaign costing $2 million annually.

The union is not alone in its shortage of skilled labor - electricians, sheet metal workers and carpenters are facing the same problem. But those inside and outside the UA say the union is at the forefront of the trades in trying to fill the worker deficit.

"We're trying to get people to recognize that this is the best-kept secret in America," said UA President Martin J. Maddaloni. "We're trying to take a different approach to show who we are."

The UA's plight - and how it might be resolved - resonates beyond the union's 320 locals, among them Baltimore's 2,000-member Local 486. Shortages of skilled plumbers could slow projects from the Bechtel mustard gas disposal plant being built in Aberdeen to the power plants President Bush wants to see come on line.

The most obvious way for the UA to replenish its ranks, many say, is to do a better job recruiting young inner-city minorities, such as Gooden's cousins, who would benefit greatly from the steady income and extensive training offered by the union.

"There is an army of young black men who are more than willing [to join] if the opportunity were available," said Jim Haughton of Fight Back, a New York-based group that fights discrimination in the construction industry, which it believes is replete with nepotism. "They are out there, desperate for work, but accessing them is a perennial problem."

Just how much the UA has opened its doors is hard to tell because the union guards its demographic data closely. The UA's upper ranks remain homogenous - of the 183 journeymen who graduated from the union's five-year instructor-training program last month, nonwhites numbered in the single-digits.

Union leaders say the picture is changing at the lower levels as recruiting directors venture into inner-city schools to enroll youths in pre-apprenticeship programs like one being organized in Baltimore by James L. Correll, president of the Baltimore Building and Trades Council, which includes Local 486. Minorities make up a quarter of the local's apprenticeship program.

"Go back 30, 40 years, and there's no doubt that if you didn't know someone, you didn't get in," said Richard O'Connor, training director at Local 130 in Chicago. "Now, it means absolutely nothing if you don't know someone."

Retiring work force

The shortage in union plumbers developed because many are baby-boomers who began working during the '60s. Those aging plumbers are starting to retire - sooner than their contemporaries because of the physical demands of the job - after working the 35 years needed for a full pension.

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